Transparent and credible elections are a milestone but there’s hard work ahead, writes Eusebius McKaiser.
If you set your expectations low enough in life, you will of course never be disappointed. It is tempting to say, “Well done us, for yet another set of elections done and dusted!” And yet we can, and should, do exactly that as a country.
Not because we didn’t kill each other, thereby setting the goal as low as avoiding large-scale violence, but because we actually held transparent and credible national and provincial elections.
These elections have proven that after 20 years of democracy, there need not be an inevitable slide back from the early gains of liberation.
We have entrenched democracy, and dispelled the post-colonial myth that democracy’s roots cannot find nurturing in the soils of the African continent.
This good news for the country is, however, bad news for an essayist or analyst.
There really is nothing genuinely momentous or watershed about the 2014 elections.
They represent only the deepening of democracy.
Anyone who dramatises the significance of a new political party’s entry, for example, would be imposing a watershed moment rather than dispassionately reading the elections results.
Equally, to imagine that these results are proof that the incumbent ANC government will rule “until Jesus returns” is to fail to scratch beneath the national vote count and looking at what lurks beneath.
In short, the 2014 elections hold fascinating political detail that any active citizen should care to understand – and I will presently explain the most crucial part of that narrative.
But really, if your friend from Mars gives you a call, or an expat from London, and wants a headline, tell them, simply, that South Africa is no longer a formal democracy but a country that has been democratised.
A democracy such as Zimbabwe may have the formal or technical markers of democracy in place – media, government, opposition, regular elections, even a Bill of Rights in Zimbabwe’s instance.
But Zimbabwe isn’t a democracy in its culture – with a deep respect for the rule of law, substantively free and fair elections, and so on.
It is in this last sense that this year represents the deepening of democracy.
Democracy has become a South African habit, right up there with pap, wors and mkhabas.
But what to make of the actual results then? They tell a story of ANC consolidation, an upward trajectory of the DA, a decent start for new kids the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and the death or terminal political illness for the rest. Let’s unpack this narrative.
The ANC: No room for complacency
The ANC deserves to have a huge bash this weekend (using its own money, of course, and not the state’s, one hopes).
They did extremely well to capture more than 60 percent of the national vote, despite that we are one of the most unequal societies on Earth, have unemployment figures unofficially over 40 percent and experience, still, deep levels of poverty.
Add to the mix corruption, scandals such as Nkandlagate, service delivery protests, crises within many state departments like the department of health in the Eastern Cape, not to mention underperformance of education departments, and you have good reason to fear dipping below the 60 percent threshold.
How did they the ANC pull it off then? A key reason is that many of us fail to recognise that life has changed for millions of South Africans over the past 20 years – for the better. This is a spectacular empirical truism that many opposition parties refuse to acknowledge, and then they are surprised by the “loyalty” of ANC voters.
This unwarranted surprise in effect accuses the ANC voter of either being irrational or being drunk on nostalgia.
Of course there is a quality problem in many areas. I would not want to live in an RDP house.
But let’s be clear. I, middle-class Eusebius living in Sandton, would not want to live in an RDP house. But a relative of mine messaged me a few weeks back very excited about her new RDP house, and even sent me images.
Her dignity is restored, now that she can move out of a really horrible structure that cannot be called a house.
Middle-class commentators, and opposition parties, use the wrong baseline to make sense of the improvements in many black South Africans’ lives. My lived experience isn’t that of someone else’s. And here the ANC is rightly unfazed.
They do their homework and know what people on the ground actually use as measurements of progress in their areas.
This does not mean we should not demand more of the state. We do and should. Mud schools, for example, are unacceptable, as is the failure to deliver textbooks. But the story of the ANC’s resounding electoral victory this year reflects a thumbs up from millions of voters about its governance record.
There is no room for ANC complacency, however. In Gauteng, the ANC’s victory margin dropped by more than 10 percent, and in metros like the City of Johannesburg and, in particular, the Nelson Mandela Bay area, the decline in ANC support would excite the DA ahead of local elections.
ANC strategists must immediately worry about these hot spots, ahead of the 2016 local elections.
In a province like the Western Cape, it is clear that the ANC has failed to divide the voters neatly between itself and the DA.
There is little doubt that this is not, as the DA insists, because the DA governance record is beyond reproach (pay a visit to the Cape Flats and tell me I’m lying), but because the ANC in the Western Cape remains badly organised, and the ANC continues to be puzzled, it seems, by how to engage the coloured community, whose political identity is fluid.
So while the ANC has benefited from the death of Cope nationally (they declined from some 7 percent of the votes in 2009 to less than a percentage point this time round), and from the continued decline of the IFP in KwaZulu-Natal, it has to continue to implement the Mangaung resolutions on organisational renewal, focus on putting better skilled ANC cadres in the state, deal decisively with the leaders who are demonstrably weak or unethical, and focus relentlessly on economic growth that is simultaneously conducive to job creation.
So as soon as Dr Malinga has given his last kick on the victory stage, the hard work must start, both for the party’s sake and the country’s.
The DA: A good story to tell?
At the time of writing, the DA had settled around 22 percent of the national vote, which means it is the fastest growing party in the country, and the only one that continues on an upward trajectory in each successive election.
The party’s leader, Helen Zille, is very excited about these results, especially since the DA has entrenched its power in the Western Cape, will have more MPs in Parliament from this year on and has reduced the ANC’s winning margins in key parts of the country that could be happy hunting grounds in the local elections.
But the snag is simple. The DA is growing among black voters off a very small base. So while it is growing in the right direction, one has to wonder whether the party ought not to do better?
After all, many DA leaders themselves explicitly aimed at 30 percent of the national vote, and deemed it feasible and not just a pipedream.
I think the party, like the ANC, can celebrate this weekend. But it too must be cautious. For example, it can’t be good that a new party, the EFF, is the official opposition in a couple of provinces when you have been the official opposition for a number of years.
That alone is an indication that more than a million South Africans, mostly black Africans, are gatvol with the ANC but not prepared to take a chance on the DA. This demands soul-searching.
But don’t hold your breath.
The DA prefers to psychologise critics, voters of others parties, researchers, and analysts, than to ask tough questions of itself. Yet, ironically, the DA faces more internal challenges in the short term than the ANC.
Will Zille step down next year? Should she? If so, who should replace her? Will Mmusi Maimane, who is very ambitious, now go to Parliament? If so, who will become caucus leader of the official opposition?
And, more philosophically, what should the identity of the DA be as it grows beyond its classic liberal roots? Maintain the liberal posture or reinvent itself? The ANC, actually, will probably be more stable in the short term.
And the rest
Sadly – if you have a heart – this analysis of the successes of the ANC and the DA represents the result of the death of Azapo, PAC, and other small parties.
But one shouldn’t be sad. Just because you played a good role in liberating the country doesn’t mean you’re fit to be in Parliament. The political market is tough. They did not sell themselves well. And diversity for its own sake seems bizarre to me.
Cope, of course, is officially dead now. The party’s leader Mosiuoa Lekota avoided the media at the IEC results centre, but put in an appearance later.
The same went for AgangSA, which managed one solitary seat. The message is simple: unless you are well organised, have a well-oiled elections machine with foot soldiers in the community, money, and a clear brand and message, you will not take off (AgangSA) or will come down quickly (Cope).
What remains to be seen is whether the EFF can be the exception and not turn out to be Cope II.
Filled with mostly political anarchists drunk on critiquing the status quo, one must credit them for gaining over a million votes in fiery red. But let’s see how they behave as opposition MPs and MPLs.
In the end, democracy, and South Africa Inc, are the winners of the 2014 elections.